The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Book Jacket

by Maggie O'Farrell
18 May 2021
320 pages
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN-13: 9781984898876
Genre: Historical Fiction
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England, 1580: The Black Death creeps across the land, an ever-present threat, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old and the young, alike. The end of days is near, but life always goes on.

A young Latin tutor—penniless and bullied by a violent father—falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman. Agnes is a wild creature who walks her family's land with a falcon on her glove and is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people. Once she settles with her husband on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon she becomes a fiercely protective mother and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is taking off when his beloved young son succumbs to sudden fever.

First published July 2020, paperback released May 2021

Here are some of the recent comments posted about Hamnet.
You can read the full discussion here, and please do participate if you wish.
Be aware that this discussion will contain spoilers!

Agnes's husband says of her that it is a joy and a curse to be married to 'Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself.' Can you relate to this feeling at all? (11 responses)

I agree with Terrie, I don't have any family members that can tell what you're thinking -- I do believe in that, just haven't experienced it personally. I think you can know someone quite well, but it's another thing when someone like Agnes can sense those ... - ColoradoGirl

Based on the portrayal of the play in this novel, how are Hamnet and his father, and Hamlet (the character) and his father related to one another? (3 responses)

In both cases, from what I recollect, the sons idolize their loving fathers from a distance. In Hamnet’s case this father-son bond ends with the death of the son while in Hamlet’s case, it ends with the death of the father. Hamnet, however, assumes the role of family protector with less ... - Andrea

Discuss the significance of names in the novel overall. Who is afforded their own name, and who is known exclusively by their relation to others? (6 responses)

Interesting choice by author to never name the person most people know as a household name even if you were not an avid Shakespeare reader, yet use the common name interchangeable with the famous play name for the son. I found this fascinating and it hooked me right away - jos

Discuss the twins' last moments together. (11 responses)

It showed how close the twins were. Later in the book when we learned about how they ate an apple as babies emphasized this. The death scene really emphasized their bond and was so well written - terriej

How did this novel change your interpretation of Shakespeare's play? (21 responses)

For anyone wishing to "read" Shakespeare, I recommend seeing a play. Shakespeare's plays were written to be performed and are FAR better seen than read. Classical versions are best first, but are much easier to understand when seen. Lots of good filmed versions are out there! - lesleyf

How do Mary, Joan, and Agnes differ in their approach to women's work in the world and rearing children, especially their daughters? How do you feel Agnes's insights affect her decisions as a mother? (9 responses)

While all the comments of "traditional women of the age" have merit, Marion the Librarian has hit upon the real difference. Mothers-in-law and stepmothers!!!!! And both those two had rather more spectacularly difficult lives than average. With her ... - lesleyf

How do you believe Agnes's special gifts affect her reputation throughout the town and her connection to her husband? (9 responses)

Townspeople were suspicious of her, but there may have been some that were intrigued and curious about those with "gifts". I wonder whether Agnes would have liked to know another person with "gifts" who she could confide in regarding her visions/premonitions. Did she ... - amyjo804

How is the arrival of the plague marked and felt by the families we follow? Were these notions familiar to you at all in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, or at other points in history? (12 responses)

In the 21st century with all our scientific advances and advanced global communications many aspects of the plague described in Hamnet remain very similar. People around the globe were frightened, uncertain how the plague/pandemic spread, and confused by the continual changing medical advice on... - johnw

How would you describe the nature of Agnes's love for her husband, and his for her? What draws them to each other, despite their different backgrounds? (14 responses)

I think the bond between the two seemed to be forged from the first moment. They each found in the other what was missing, and the love, passion, and trust they put in each other completed the circle that held them together through a unusual marriage - patriciag

Overall, what do you think of Hamnet? (no spoilers in this thread, please) (33 responses)

I usually don't enjoy books with alot of descriptive passages but I did enjoy this book. I probably need to read it again knowing the husband was Shakespeare ( I didn't ....dumb right? ) Also, rather sad. But I can see why lots of people loved it - sharalynnep

Shakespeare's plays are known for their supernatural elements and figures. What might be considered supernatural about the events of the novel? (7 responses)

I think Agnes’s ability to read people, sometimes discern the future, and her awareness of departed souls, was a psychic gift, more preternatural than supernatural. Perhaps Hamnet’s and Judith’s connection was similar, being two halves of a whole, as their father noticed with their... - barbarar

The fathers in the book create a physical and/or emotional distance between themselves and their families. Do you think this affects their children and lineage overall, and if so, in what ways? (11 responses)

John's father made it impossible for John to remain in Stratford. In London he was free to become the person he yearned to be. The downside was that circumstances made it necessary to choose between remaining in Stratford and making his family the priority or sacrifice that gift to become ... - audrey1

What are the consequences of Agnes's encouraging her husband to go to London? Do you think she still regrets the decision at the end of the book as she is watching Hamlet onstage? (13 responses)

I think she was surprised when she saw the play. Being in the audience and seeing how other people reacted to it, as well as her own reaction made her realize that she had made the right decision - Auntie Mame

What do you think makes Susanna's birth different from that of the twins? How does this manifest itself in each of the children's relationships with their mother? (6 responses)

I felt Susanas birth was free away from manmade trappings and false securities fir life, the significance of being born alone with her mother outside in nature vs the twins being confined and forced to give birth indoors surrounded by people Agnes wasn’t especially close to. Agnes feels ... - jos

What does Agnes learn about her husband's life in London from her attempts to find him? Do you think she forgives him in the end upon witnessing his homage to his son? (18 responses)

I agree with so many of the above answers. I believe when Agnes saw how William was living - like a pauper/monk - that she then realized he was not with other women - and when she saw the play she then realized that he was as heartbroken about Hamnet as she was. I believe she forgives him ... - joanw

What information do the three houses that Agnes inhabits tell her about what will happen there? Do you feel the energetics of the spaces, and the people who live there with her, become characters in and of themselves? (5 responses)

Agnes loved her first home.She felt free and was able to use the forest for more freedom. Her third home was close to the first but only because it had gardens which she could lose herself in while she planted. Her second home was not only confining for her but also her husband. This was why Agnes ... - arlenei

What roles do the written word, the spoken word, and words that are neither written nor spoken play in how the characters know one another and how we know them? (5 responses)

I don’t think that Agnes’ ability to “read” plants was particularly valued at that time, but rather her ability caused suspicion. And I don’t think that Agnes particularly valued her husband’s ability to write for the stage; maybe after Hamnet’s death, ... - juliep

Why do you think William Shakespeare goes unnamed in the novel? Would you have recognized him as the great playwright without knowing this was his family's story? (23 responses)

I specifically wanted to read the book because I had read it was about Shakespeare. But I loved that while he was very important to the plot, he was not central. Shakespeare scholars constantly bring up his mysterious life in London away from his family. The novel makes his distance plausible but... - patriciag

Why does Susanna take up her mother's work in spite of her frustrations with her mother? What do you expect her prospects of marriage are, as she reflects on them at the end of the novel? (10 responses)

Girls at that time didn’t have choices. Susanna did what she knew the household needed - running the house and tending to the books. And also using her knowledge of plants to help people - knowledge that she learned from her mother. I feel sure she married, whether happily or not, who knows&#... - juliep

"[A]n outstanding masterpiece of Shakespearean apocrypha...The book is filled with astonishing, timely passages, such as the plague's journey to Stratford via a monkey's flea from Alexandria. This is historical fiction at its best." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This striking, painfully lovely novel captures the very nature of grief." - Booklist (starred review)

"Imagining the life of the family Shakespeare left behind in Stratford makes an intriguing change of pace for a veteran storyteller...A gripping drama of the conflict between love and destiny." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"What could be more common, over centuries and continents, than the death of a child - and yet Maggie O'Farrell, with her flawless sentences and furious heart, somehow makes it new. This story of remarkable people bereft of their boy will leave you shaking with loss but also the love from which family is spun." - Emma Donoghue, author of Room

"Grief and loss so finely written I could hardly bear to read it" - Sarah Moss, author of Ghost Wall

"I don't know how anyone could fail to love this book. It is a marvel: a great work of imaginative recreation and a great story. It is also a moral achievement to have transformed that young child from being a literary footnote into someone so tenderly alive that part of you wishes he had survived and Hamlet never been written" - Dominic Dromgoole, author of Hamlet, Globe to Globe

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by JanS
A new look at an old master
From the first paragraph, O’Farrell led us into a new approach to William Shakespeare. His name is never mentioned, and it’s his family that takes center stage in the captivating lyric novel. The author engrosses the reader with details of life in the 16th century England. Just as the Bard was beginning to ply his trade in London, his family lived a world away in the smaller village. It’s a deep dive into a backstory where this gifted storyteller weaves grief, sorrow, hope, courage, and love into a masterful work.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by BuffaloGirlKS
Achingly Beautiful!
Achingly beautiful, grief-laden, resounding with love, and ultimately uplifting! Hamnet is by far the best, most beautiful book I have read this year and one of my 10 favorite books of my lifetime of reading. Maggie O'Farrell's writing is enchanting and captivated me from the first page. Her descriptions of illness and grief were perfectly nuanced and made me wonder how they could be so correct in portraying those things. I subsequently read that Ms. O'Farrell has written a memoir, "I Am, I Am, I Am" about near death experiences she has gone through which seemed to explain her understanding of illness and death.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Katherine Pond
The Backstory to Hamlet?
A fictional imagining of Shakespeare's early life and marriage in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The focus, however, is not really upon him but rather the family in which he was raised and the young local woman who becomes his wife. Indeed, he is never mentioned by name and once married doesn't appear very often in the narrative. He is an absentee father, living, writing and acting in London as his wife and three children reside in a small home alongside his parent's home. The marriage is loving and warm despite the lengthy separation between the spouses, until the plague hits them and their young son, Hamnet succumbs at a young age. The impact of the loss on them and their families is devastating but seems to give rise to one of the most famous plays in English literature.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Anna Rowe
Wonderful Reading Experience
Maggie O'Farrell is such a talented stylist and it shines through like the sun in the writing of this book. I loved what she did with the character of Shakespeare's wife, Agnes. I loved how she keeps Shakespeare offside to give room for Agnes to tell her story. I also love the way O'Farrell portrays grief in her writing. Unlike anyone else. It is a beautiful, creative, memorable piece of writing

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Anna Maria Rowe
My best of 2020
Maggie O'Farrell is such a talented stylist and it shines through like the sun in the writing of this book. I loved what she did with the character of Shakespeare's wife, Agnes. I loved how she keeps Shakespeare offside to give room for Agnes to tell her story. I also love the way O'Farrell portrays grief in her writing. Unlike anyone else. It is a beautiful, creative, memorable piece of writing.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Davida
Net or Let
For those who don’t know, Hamnet was the name of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died at the age of 11. In O’Farrell’s latest novel, she takes up the scholarly presumption that there was a direct connection between his son’s death and his play “Hamlet.” To do this, O’Farrell draws detailed portraits of two main people – Hamnet himself, and his mother Agnes (aka Anne) Hathaway. Together with this, O’Farrell also draws a simpler, yet no less meticulous, portrait of Hamnet’s father, almost as an aside to his relationship with these two main characters. Goodreads says that this is a “luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss…”

I’ve read quite a few reviews of this book, many of which have picked up on things I was originally going to write about myself. For example, Shakespeare himself is never named in the book. In addition, there’s a whole passage which O’Farrell included here, which ended up being (far too) relevant to our present world pandemic, that being where she traces the minutia of how one wave of the plague reached Stratford. Reading that, and knowing that travel then was nowhere near as popular or widespread as it is now, no one would be surprised that this pandemic we are living through would be so devastating. Mind you, the few lines about how all the London playhouses were closed down as soon as the plague appeared made me think that at least Queen Elizabeth I and her Parliament knew how to handle such things much better than some countries (including the UK) are doing today!

Politics and current events aside, since other bloggers have exhausted all those talking points so nicely, I decided that for this review I’ll to concentrate on three less discussed topics. First, on O’Farrell’s writing style in this novel. Next, I’ll look at her character development. Finally, I will talk about how this book differs from her other novels. Now, as my regular readers know, I’ve read all of O’Farrell’s novels as well as her memoir, and so I believe I’m well equipped to approach this review from these particular angles.

O’Farrell’s writing style is what drew me to her books in the first place. What I find to be magical about her writing is how she’s able to use her language to build up an atmosphere. In this book in particular, O’Farrell has adapted a slightly more poetic quality to her writing, with highly descriptive passages, many of which felt pensive, dark, and a touch brooding. Yet, there was still an underlying level of lightness here, to keep this from feeling too gray. These descriptions are used to paint pictures of both the characters and the locations, as well as how the former moved through the latter. As someone who visualizes the action of the books as I read, this worked perfectly for me, and I could easily see everything and everyone that O’Farrell put down on each page. In fact, there were a couple of times when O’Farrell described the scent of something where I almost was able to imagine that same smell! If you ask me, that is artistry in writing at its very finest!

This leads directly to how O’Farrell developed her characters. What was most fascinating here, was that my ability to picture each character was accomplished with an absolute minimum of dialog. Usually, a character’s mettle is often revealed in what they say, in addition to what they do. However, O’Farrell accomplished this by concentrating more on getting into the minds of the characters than letting them speak for themselves. She showed us their gestures, their moods, their thoughts, as well as how their bodies moved within the spaces where she placed them. We saw them change and grow and develop, much like (pardon the cliché) watching a flower bloom. In the end, while Agnes ends up being the primary protagonist, each character portrayed here – no matter how minor – was believable, and flawlessly developed and formed.

How this book differs from her other novels is twofold. First, this one has a tiny touch of magical realism, where Agnes seems to be a bit of a psychic, which she seems to pass on to one of her daughters. This time, I wasn’t bothered by this at all, probably because back then people were very superstitious, and it fit in with the overall narrative and character development. Second, all of her previous books were either contemporary fiction, or had mixed contemporary and historical dual timelines. If I recall correctly even with the historical parts of O’Farrell other novels never went further back than early(ish) 20th century. This novel, however is not only fully and totally historical fiction, it is set far further back in time than any of her other books. And not just by one century, but reaching back to the late 16th century and very early 17th century, no less. Now, I’m a huge lover of historical fiction, especially biographical historical fiction, so this was absolutely no problem for me whatsoever, but this certainly was a departure for O’Farrell. I can only hope that her faithful fans won’t find this too startling of a departure, and can still enjoy it as they have done with all her previous works.

Finally, the way O’Farrell concludes this novel, had me weeping like a baby! Now, it isn’t often that one reads biographical, historical fiction (where we already know who will live and who will die and even how and when), that something appears in a book that makes you surprisingly emotional, but this one does just that with the last page. Taking all these things into account, what we have here is… well… nothing short of a masterpiece. There is therefore no way I could give this less than a full five stars. I will be recommending this to anyone and everyone, even people who don’t like historical or biographical, or women’s fiction.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
Utterly enthralling, this is yet another dose of Maggie O’Farrell brilliance.
Hamnet is the eighth novel by award-winning British author, Maggie O’Farrell. In the summer of 1596, an eleven-year-old boy, the grandson of a Stratford-upon-Avon glovemaker, tries desperately to get medical attention for his twin sister, suddenly struck down with a fever. His mother, skilled with herbs, would know what to do, but she is a mile away tending to her swarming bees. His father is in London, and the physician is on a call. Hamnet is afraid for his beloved twin.

This is a story told from multiple perspectives, and while it pivots around the event of Hamnet’s death, it is more the story of his mother, Agnes than anyone else. The split-time narrative alternates between that summer day in 1596 when Hamnet’s sister Judith falls ill, and the significant events in the years leading up to, and following that tragic death.

The reader may draw a natural conclusion about the identity of the sixteenth-century Stratford man with ink-stained fingers, but O’Farrell never names him; instead, depending on the perspective of the narrative he might be referred to as the glovemaker’s son, the brother, the Latin tutor, the husband, the brother-in-law, the father, the uncle.

History it may be, but this is no dry tome: O’Farrell takes the scant known facts of the playwright’s family life and, with gorgeous prose, richly fills them in, making the historical figures real, warm, living people with feelings and emotions and desires, characters in whom it is easy to invest, with whom it is impossible not to empathise. Only the eyes of the hardest-hearted will not be brimming with tears.

O’Farrell is such a talented author; her characters are so well formed, her scene so skilfully set that sixteenth Century Stratford-upon-Avon comes alive, is vivid in the reader’s mind. Her extensive research is apparent on every page, but the historical tidbits are seamlessly woven into the story so that the reader is barely aware of how much they are learning. Utterly enthralling, this is yet another dose of Maggie O’Farrell brilliance.

Maggie O'Farrell was born in Northern Ireland in 1972. Her novels include Hamnet (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award), After You'd Gone, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, The Hand That First Held Mine (winner of the Costa Novel Award), and Instructions for a Heatwave. She has also written a memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. She lives in Edinburgh.

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